NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Doing business in a global economy has become far more challenging than ever, a big part of surviving and even thriving in this challenging operating environment is the ability for businesses to innovate and to come up with new ideas. But what is the state of innovation in South Africa and do South Africans see themselves as innovative and if so, what do they deem to be the barrier of innovation. I’m joined in studio by McLean Sibanda, he’s the chief executive officer of The Innovation Hub, thank you so much for your time.
McLEAN SIBANDA: Thank you, good morning.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Let’s talk a little bit about The Innovation Hub, what do you do, what role do you play in what we call innovation?
McLEAN SIBANDA: The Innovation Hub is an innovation agency of the Gauteng government, we are a subsidiary of the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency, and we have been charged in essence with assisting the Gauteng government to be able to raise the level of innovation and also ensure that innovation contributes to socio-economic development of the people of Gauteng but also the competitiveness of the industries within Gauteng. So our business in essence revolves around broadly four areas, one is working with both government and private sector in terms of finding innovative solutions to the problems that they face on a daily basis, whether it be service delivery or just issues of efficiency in business. Secondly, on skills development, working to bridge the skills gap in business. Thirdly, which I think is quite important, is the entrepreneurial component, so we incubate a whole range of start-ups in various sectors, which obviously would result in jobs being created and also exports are being made. Lastly, we provide spaces for innovative companies, some large, some small, to be able to locate their businesses and that’s why re run Africa’s leading science and technology park that also bears the same name called The Innovation Hub in Pretoria. But also we have now expanded into the townships and created spaces, and that’s our way of taking innovation to our people.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: There are so many innovative entrepreneurs, I can think of one off the top of my head, and I’m sure there are many others like him, somebody who saw an opportunity in the community and came up with an app and taught himself to code, which for me is unbelievable. For enterprises that want to occupy spaces at The Hub what is the criteria once they want to engage with The Innovation Hub?
McLEAN SIBANDA: The major criteria is that they have got to be in the research and development or knowledge economy sector. So we don’t take just any kind of run-of-the-mill company into our spaces. We are 98% full and we’re expanding the building. So we look for those companies that would benefit from being located at The Innovation Hub but also help us create an ecosystem because the idea of a science and technology park is to create a cluster of companies that can also start to do business between themselves. But also there is a sourcing of skills from the universities, we are located right next to the University of Pretoria and with a five to ten kilometre radius we have the Tshwane University of Technology and Unisa, and we work with all the universities in Tshwane.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: In terms of the ideas that you’ve seen and I’m sure you’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs from different parts of the country and you’ve seen some of the amazing things that they are able to put together, off the top of your head what is that one idea that you have seen that has blown you away or had you exclaiming wow!
McLEAN SIBANDA: What is exciting about working at The Innovation Hub is that we see brilliant ideas on a daily basis. Yes, one can single out some of the ideas, we have Ntuthuko Shezi, who’s come up with Livestock Wealth, which is a brilliant idea in terms of taking an old concept of using cattle or livestock as a form of savings and he has now put ICT into it and he’s now selling cattle to people who live in the city. We’ve got Paseka Lesolang, who while staying at his grandmother’s place in Ga-Rankuwa was irritated with a toilet that was leaking and he came up with a leak-less valve and that particular technology is now being deployed to a number of households in Tswhane. We’ve got hi-tech things like Altis Biologics, which is one of our high-growth companies that has got bone growth technology, which helps to heal broken bones much quicker and it’s also a paste that is injected during surgery and, therefore, helps to reduce that incidence of a second operation when someone has a hip operation, for instance. There are people who are working on blood-based TB diagnostics. We’ve also got entrepreneurs like Porsha M, who has come up with a skincare product based on Marula. Obviously ICT is becoming quite big, we run one of the biggest ICT mobile applications incubator, mLab, and we’re seeing a whole range of entrepreneurs coming up with applications, whether it be in education, in health, some reducing duplication of medications in clinics, MeMeZA, which is also working on fighting crime in Diepsloot and other informal settlements.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: In terms of small businesses why is it important for them to incubate? What are some of the benefits that were missing in terms of understanding the incubation process?
McLEAN SIBANDA: It’s not natural for many people to start a business, it’s almost like a child that is born premature, they battle to breathe on their own and an incubator in essence serves that role, similar to an incubator, it provides oxygen and the necessary life support system to a young idea. Within the incubation programme what we provide is access to space, so you don’t have to worry about running the business in the back of your home. We’ve got facilities for one to actually have meetings in a professional environment. We provide what we believe today is really the currency of most businesses, which is high-speed bandwidth, we also provide mentors, so people who have travelled the journey and they know some of the challenges that you’re facing. Being an entrepreneur not everything always goes right, so being in an incubator, there are moments when you are actually done, you believe that things are not working and you have a coach or a mentor there who can sit down and look at your business and help you to actually focus on the vital signs of the business to say let’s work on these particular things, yes, it doesn’t look so great right now but looking at the vital signs we are going in the right direction. That way we are obviously able to increase the survival of businesses as well.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: So let’s say I’m a business and I’ve been part of The Innovation Hub and I’ve gone through the entire incubation process and now I’m out on my own and somewhere along the lines I stubble and things go a little bit wrong, do I still have that relationship with The Innovation Hub to come back and perhaps sit down with my mentors and the previous people who have assisted me and say, this is where I have gone wrong, how do I fix it?
McLEAN SIBANDA: Absolutely, once you have gone through our programme you are an alumni, you are a friend of The Innovation Hub, we call upon those people to come back and mentor and in some cases if a business doesn’t work or faces certain challenges then we are able to sit down and figure out how we can help.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: You mentioned all those innovation ideas earlier on in our conversation and it seems like we are doing well on the innovation front but is there more that needs to be done to get everybody thinking for the future, where you’re thinking about the problems that we might anticipate and we’re already finding the solutions now, what more needs to be done.
McLEAN SIBANDA: I think the one thing that is perhaps misunderstood about innovation is that innovation is not necessarily hi-tech, innovation is a response to a particular problem, it could be an irritation, it could be something that is actually preventing one from making money or from getting their efficiencies and, therefore, in our opinion what we really need to do is to go back to school level and start to teach a culture of innovation to youngsters, expose them to the problems that they face on a daily basis but also ask them to come up with solutions to those particular problems. In coming up with the solutions to the problems the first step is obviously one of invention, they are inventing something but to then translate that into innovation is a process of then getting those particular ideas to be adopted by the communities and by the businesses.
The other thing is when one looks at the challenges that most businesses actually face, one is access to finance, two is access to market and three is access to skills. I think on the skills side we seem to be making good progress. On the access to finance there is finance but it is not at the right part of the value chain. I think the biggest challenge is access to markets because the markets are controlled by large companies.
It’s my view that I think government can play a bigger role in terms of using its procurement muscle to be able to also enable access to markets for most of these start-up companies.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: When we look at South Africa it’s just one part of the African continent and there are a lot of place where innovation takes place, Kenya being one particular area and Nigeria as well. How do we fair when we put all those countries together and perhaps even our neighbours around the SADC region?
McLEAN SIBANDA: My view is that we actually do pretty well and part of the evidence for that is some of the competitions that our entrepreneurs enter. The Innovation Prize for Africa is run annually by the African Innovation Foundation. For the last four years that we have been associated with the competition every year when they announce the top ten South Africa has always had at least four innovations or entrepreneurs in the top ten. But also the other thing is that unlike Kenya, in my view a lot of things are happening in Nairobi but outside of Nairobi there is very little. In South Africa Johannesburg is a hub on its own, ICT is booming, that’s why we’ve set up Tshimologong, an incubator focusing on gaming. Cape Town is also booming, it’s a start-up capital on its own. Tshwane is also a start-up capital on its own. So I think there are a lot of things happening here in South Africa. In the rest of the continent, Nigeria and Rwanda there are a lot of things starting to happen, particularly in the ICT sector, much of it is really driven by the needs and the challenges that people are facing and that’s why innovation is based on solving challenges.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Now I understand that you have signed a memorandum of agreement between yourself and the Chamber of Mines, tell us a about more about that?
McLEAN SIBANDA: One of the things I referred to earlier is working to find innovations for business and also for government, and we have a platform called Open-IX, open innovation challenge platform and we generally work with business and government to say what are your most pressing challenges or where are the opportunities that we can then be able to unlock potential. So these particular MOU is one case in point, where we have entered into a collaboration with the Chamber to be able to figure out what more can be done in the mining sector. South Africa traditionally has been a leader within the mining sector, given that we have the deepest gold mines and so forth. So we are going back and we saying what else can we do? We are hoping over the next two months that we’ll be able to come up with innovations in the mining sector that we can then assist to commercialise.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Outside of the mining sector in which other sectors or industries do you see vast opportunities?
McLEAN SIBANDA: I think the opportunities from a growth point of view obviously life sciences is a growth point, with a focus on health , and in health it’s not so much in the therapeutics, yes there is potential around therapeutics but it’s really around diagnostics, being able to detect the diseases before they have destroyed one’s life. So we are doing a lot there on trying to find the right diagnostics and devices. In the energy sector there is a lot of potential, I think you are fully aware that we have been battling from an energy point of view, yet we have got natural resources, whether it be the sun or the waste that we generate and how do we then use that to be able to generate the energy and, therefore, reduce the burden on the grid. Water is going to be a bigger challenge and, therefore, we see potential for innovations in water, whether it be treatment of water or ways to detect unaccounted water by municipalities or toilets and devices that help us reduce the amount of water that we waste through flushing the toilets. I think ICT is more of an enabler and we see huge potential, particularly in the internet of things and people talk about the internet of everything because we’re moving to a stage where everything is connected and we see opportunities for connected devices, connected homes, where you can be at work but you can monitor the security around your house and you can warm up your food before you even get home.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: What other activities should we look forward to in terms of what The Innovation Hub might be engaging in?
McLEAN SIBANDA: A huge part of our focus this year is also looking at improving service delivery, assisting government, particularly e-government around service delivery. So we are doing a lot there.
We are expanding our footprint into the townships, it’s our view that we’ve got to go out to where a large part of our population is, we’ve got to diversify the pool of people involved within innovation.
So we are establishing these eKasi Labs, so we are already in Ga-Rankuwa, Soweto, Alexandra, we are opening up in the Vaal, Thembisa, Mohlakeng and Mamelodi. All that should happen before the end of March 2017. We’ve launched quite an exciting pogramme as well called Code Tribe, which is linked to our mLab and this is teaching young people how to code, so we have taken onboard 25 young people in Soweto, 40 young people at The Innovation Hub, we’re expanding that into Thembisa, as well as Alex, so we should have over 100 young people that we are training to code and, therefore providing the skills for the future.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Earlier on you were talking about instilling the culture of innovation from a young age, when we talk from a young age are we talking high school or university, which is the preferred age? When I think of young entrepreneurs there are some who will tell you that they were selling sweets and biscuits since they were in primary school and that already ignited that flame. So at what age do we start instilling innovation in young people?
McLEAN SIBANDA: My view is that it should start as early as possible, primary school is the right age because the younger they are they are not aware of adversities, I think the mind is quite open. My son is 19 now but he was coding when he was 16 already because he was exposed and I think also given the fact that most of our young kids today have got devices what we see and I think what we should be promoting is them not just using the devices but looking at the devices as tools to be able to generate something. We are involved with quite an exciting programme, which is run by Primestars, Step Up 2 A Start Up, and they utilise cinemas on the weekends to be able to teach young people how to be entrepreneurs. So I think the key thing is really teaching them how to solve problems but secondly, teaching them about risk and that it’s okay to take a risk and it’s okay to fail. I think that’s where we battle as South Africans, when you fail in business people look at you as if you have a disease and you cannot be cured. So I think we need to look at failure as being good, the big question is when you fail in business is what have you learnt. I think that needs to start at an earlier age. We see countries like the US, where there is an embedded culture of entrepreneurship, people fail, and when the entrepreneurs pitch for money they’ll tell you that this is my seventh start-up, the last five failed. But people don’t say we are not going to put in money, you are going to fail again. People say, well, surely they must have learnt something and they will back that particular entrepreneur.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: That was McLean Sibanda, he’s the chief executive officer of The Innovation Hub.